Experts testifying on Capitol Hill say President Bush's upcoming trip to Latin America will be crucial to efforts at improving the U.S. image with governments and people in the region. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where a State Department official responded to lawmakers unhappy with what they see as a weak U.S. economic and diplomatic approach to the region.
The president's trip beginning next week will take him to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico.
It's seen as pivotal to combating what many experts and members of Congress see as rising anti-American sentiment in the region.
This is among the concerns voiced by expert witnesses at a hearing of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.
Peter Hakim, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, says the Bush visit comes at a difficult time in which the U.S. is no longer viewed with the confidence it once was. "I have not seen in the region, and I travel there quite a bit, as much anti-U.S. sentiment across the region and it is very pervasive, nor have I witnessed the degree of lack of confidence in [the] U.S. government and [its] leadership," he said.
Arturo Valenzuela, Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, and a former Latin American expert on the National Security Council, offers sees the same picture. "I have never seen a moment where there is as much of a rejection of U.S. foreign policy and [the] posture of the U.S. in the world as one sees today," he said.
Valenzuela asserts that a push-back against the U.S. crosses the political spectrum driven, in his view, primarily by President Bush's handling of Iraq.
However, he believes the U.S. also needs to undertake a more strategically-focused re-assessment of policy, while paying attention to key issues such as trade and narcotics.
In a letter to the president, the chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Congressman Eliot Engel, urges the president to focus more intensively on Latin America in the last two years of his presidency.
Engel is concerned about reductions in development assistance, in particular with child health funding, in the president's 2008 budget. "We see the disparity in terms of income, economic disparity, where a very small percentage of people at the top are doing extremely well, are extremely wealthy and then the tremendous overwhelming amount of the population are living in absolutely unacceptable poverty. This is a powder keg and this is certainly something I think the U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to," he said.
The Bush administration defends its record, saying overall aid to Latin America increased from $862 million to $1.4 billion this year, while saying some hard decisions had to be made regarding priorities for some countries, such as Bolivia.
Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, says U.S. efforts seek to maintain consistent political and economic engagement. "The president's trip to the region gives us a great opportunity to say yet again how we have engaged in the region, underscore our commitment to the region, and to listen and hear from the region from the region would like to see from us," he said.
As for what the president can accomplish, much is likely to depend on actions he takes once he returns to Washington.
Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Council of the Americas, says one goal would be to increase U.S.-Brazilian cooperation on ethanol fuel technology. "U.S. energy security would be enhanced by working more collaboratively with Brazil to develop and promote ethanol resources. Of course, to be most effective, the U.S. tariff on imported ethanol has to be reduced or eliminated," he said.
Peter Hakim says Congress must do its part by approving free trade agreements that the administration negotiated with Peru, Colombia and Panama, adding that failure to do so could blunt goodwill the president is able to encourage. "This would signal to the rest of Latin America, again, a certain unreliability of the U.S. even on an issue that we put as a very high priority," he said.
As the president prepares for his trip, lawmakers also continue to worry about the impact of Venezuela's president Hugh Chavez' policies on U.S. efforts.
Republican Dan Burton and Democrat Gregory Meeks voice similar are concerned the Venezuelan leader has taken advantage of a lack of U.S. engagement.
BURTON: "President Chavez has been, in my opinion, taking advantage of the poverty with the vast amounts of oil money he is getting, and he is using that money to move many of those governments down there to the left. And I think that bodes very ill for the U.S. and for the region long term.
MEEKS: We can criticize Chavez all we want, but what matters most to the poorest in the region with the world's largest income inequities is who will bring their plight to light, who will help?"
Lawmakers will also be watching to see what messages President Bush brings to President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia regarding his anti-corruption and anti-rebel campaigns.
Members of Congress are also focused on what happens in Cuba in what many believe is an almost certain coming power transition from ailing President Fidel Castro.